During flu season or when feeling under the weather, people depend on foods like chicken soup, citrus fruits and tea with honey to boost immunity. Our immune system is designed to take action against foreign invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites to protect us against diseases, and a balanced diet rich in vitamins and minerals plus healthy lifestyle practices like getting adequate sleep and exercise prime the body to fight infections.
According to the Harvard School of Public Health1 , 7 factors can weaken our immune system (make sure to keep reading to learn how to boost it!):
- Poor diet: A diet lacking in essential nutrients can impair the activity of immune cells and the production of antibodies.
- Older age: Our immune-related organs produce less immune cells as we age. Micronutrient deficiencies can worsen already declining immune function.
- Excess weight: Obesity has been shown as a risk factor for the influenza virus, probably because it impairs the function of T-cells, a type of white blood cells.
- Chronic mental stress: Stress releases the hormone cortisol which in turn suppresses the inflammation that triggers white blood cell action.
- Lack of sleep: Since cytokines that fight infections are released during sleep, less sleep results in less cytokines.
- Environmental toxins: Toxins such as alcohol, smoke and pollution can impair immune cells’ normal activity.
- Chronic diseases: Autoimmune diseases attack immune cells.
Given these factors, the Harvard School of Public Health recommends 8 steps to support a healthy immune system:
- Eat a balance diet rich in fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains and water.
- Supplement diet gaps to receive the recommended daily allowance for essential nutrients.
- Exercise regularly.
- Manage stress.
- Sleep 7-9 hours nightly.
- Wash hands throughout the day.
- Moderate alcohol.
Eating enough nutrients is required for the health and function of immune cells. Nutrients critical to the growth and function of immune cells include vitamin C, vitamin D, zinc, selenium, protein and iron. Studies found that those who are micronutrient deficient are at greater risk of bacterial, viral and other infections, and that vitamin supplementation can improve immune response.
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